26 June 2010

On the use (and non-use) of nuclear weapons

From a PBS/Frontline interview with General Charles Horner, Commander of the U.S. Ninth Air Force on the topic of the Gulf War:
Q: ...We shouldn't have pulled any punches, they've got tactical nuclear weapons, the Republican Guard are parked in the desert, why not use them to take them out?

Horner: American people, in particular, like simple answers to complex problems and one of the answers might be why don't you just nuke 'em? Well the answer to that is you've got to study weapons effects and what can happen, it would take a lot of nuclear weapons to get one tank division and I don't think the American people are going to stand for two/three hundred nuclear weapons going off in the desert, plus the fact you get 'em more efficiently by using laser guided bombs, so nuclear weapons are only good against cities and they're only good against civilian populations.
That link was sent to me by a friend in Indiana.   When I emailed back a question, he sent this interesting reply:
They impressed upon us in ROTC that nukes are neither 'magic wands" that make all your problems go away, nor are a bunch going off necessarily 'world-killing", short of a full scale exchange. Consider that tactical nukes are, I forget, but maybe 5-10 kilotons, whereas strategic nukes get up into the megatons; missile silos and C3 sites are so hardened that we (and the Soviets) had to task multiple megatons per target to ensure a high PK (Probability of Kill). (Scale tests of the silo for the MX missile indicated that it could survive all but a direct hit from a strategic nuke.)

Most people do not know that before Desert Storm, and after the wall came down, that in the first Bush Administration that Cheney (then SecDef) was drawing up plans to start scrapping our nukes. Nukes are financially expensive to build, store, and maintain, and expensive politically. Cheney, et al., knew what "smart" conventional weapons were capable of and had the goal to retire all but a few strategic nukes, replacing the rest with precision-guided weapons. That is because massively increasing gigajoules only slightly increases PK, whereas small increases in accuracy yields disproportional greater PK. The only thing was that fielding the new precision-guided weapons would initially be as expensive as maintaining nukes, though the cost would plummet after they were produced and the nukes were gone.


  1. I feel that the above exchange captures the paradox of nuclear arms. They are not good at all for conventional warfare. The only thing they are good for, at this time, is a massive nuclear exchange. That means we have a weapon that's sole purpose is a kind of war that would be fought once and exclusively with that kind of weapon.

    That being said, as long as anyone has one or the capability to have one in a short time scale you are required to maintain at least some stockpile of those weapons. What I find tragic is that we don't have the political will to prevent the proliferation of these weapons (which I see as an inherent evil as it only pushes further proliferation). The fact that a country such as Iran is likely to obtain such a weapons should be pants soilingly frightening to anyone that cares about world stability and peace.

  2. Well nobody likes Iran, but India to their east has nukes and so does Pakistan their neighbor and so does Israil to their west, so

    "as long as anyone has one or the capability to have one in a short time scale you are required to maintain at least some stockpile of those weapons".

    so by your logic they deserve to have them too.


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